Meow Wolf CEO says he’s stepping down

Danielle Prokop
dprokop@sfnewmexican.com
Posted 10/21/19

A man who has become known as the lord of a Santa Fe art collective steeped in the bizarre, that in recent years has burgeoned into multimillion-dollar entertainment giant, is shucking his crown -- for now.

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Meow Wolf CEO says he’s stepping down

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A man who has become known as the lord of a Santa Fe art collective steeped in the bizarre, that in recent years has burgeoned into multimillion-dollar entertainment giant, is shucking his crown -- for now.

In a post Friday night on Meow Wolf's website, 36-year-old CEO Vince Kadlubek said he was stepping down but would remain on the company's payroll as an executive adviser to the leadership team. He described the move as a new phase in his career.

He indicated in the post the move might be temporary, saying he plans to take time to recharge and hone his skills as a leader and collaborator "in hopeful preparation for returning as CEO in the future."

In the meantime, a team of three will lead the company: Ali Rubinstein, chief creative officer; Carl Christensen, chief financial officer; and Jim Ward, content chief.

Kadlubek will also serve as a board member. "I have chosen to shift from the position of CEO in order to focus on developing a new toolset of skills, build key business development initiatives, and take care of my personal health," Kadlubek wrote.

In an interview Saturday with The New Mexican, Kadlubek said a major factor in his decision was the stress of running the burgeoning business.

"There's a lot of waking up every day with a sense of fight or flight," he said, adding he dropped his self-care routines such as hiking and meditation and instead began to cope with stress by overworking, drinking and isolating.

Kadlubek was involved with Meow Wolf when it began more than decade ago with an art space on Second Street, where it displayed murals and other installations, and held live music shows and multimedia productions.

The quirky group received rave reviews in 2011 with an exhibit at the Center for Contemporary Arts called The Due Return, a more than 70-foot-long, two-story ship that drew visitors to its interactive, otherworldly features. A year later, the group made headlines when it launched a political action committee dedicated to local politics called WolfPAC. One of its intiatives, led by Kadlubek, was a push to decriminalize marijuana possession in Santa Fe, The New Mexican reported in 2012.

In 2015, the arts collective announced it would rent a long-vacant bowling alley from Santa Fe resident George R.R. Martin, author of the popular Song of Fire and Ice book series that was adapted for HBO's Game of Thrones. The group would create a new, permanent interactive art exhibit much like The Due Return, it said, but far more high-tech.

Since Meow Wolf opened its House of Eternal Return exhibit in 2016 at the Rufina Circle site, it has expanded from an interactive art mystery complex and concert venue to a sprawling company of more than 500 employees. Meow Wolf has produced music festivals, launched projects in several cities nationwide and partnered with groups such as the Santa Fe Pride festival and the New Mexico United professional soccer team in Albuquerque.

"Five years ago, in the fall of 2014, I was making $50/day delivering food, living at my parents' house on the south side of Santa Fe, and dreaming of becoming an accomplished playwright," Kadlubek wrote in the Friday post. "I was 32 years old with no college education or formal business training, throwing underground dance parties at local dive bars and wondering what I was doing with my life.

"Only 14 months later," he continued, "I became CEO of New Mexico's fastest growing startup company, and our team of artists unveiled one of the most impactful pieces of art in the 21st century. ... House of Eternal Return became an instant viral sensation. Thousands of people were visiting the exhibit on a daily basis. All of a sudden, I found myself in an entirely new existence with unreal momentum."

In the interview Saturday, Kadlubek said he doesn't feel like he's the right person to lead the company at this time. "I definitely want to be in a leadership position," he said. "If I can get there again in the future, I would love that."

In the meantime, according to his post, he hopes to focus on other issues, such as affordable housing and climate change, and plans to spend more time with his family.

Christensen, the Meow Wolf CFO, who has a background in finance with Goldman Sachs and entertainment companies, said he was skeptical when he was first recruited to the company two years ago. Since then, he said, he's fallen in love.

"Meow Wolf is such a beast of its own," he said. "It's got its own culture and attracts people in really unique ways, and it, in that vein, attracts opportunities."

Ward, the content chief, who has a background in operating global advertising accounts and spent more than a decade at Lucasfilm, said he first was an investor in Meow Wolf, then served as an adviser and joined the company in 2016.

Ward called Kadlubek's decision courageous. "He's going to carve out the long-term vision of the company, and as long as we're staying true to the company, we'll make the right decision," Ward said.

The company's vision is changing, Ward added, but he said he still sees what inspired him two years ago.

"I kind of like to call it a vortex of creativity that has ultimately spawned a movement that not only disrupted entertainment but provides a platform for artists," Ward said.

Rubinstein, the chief creative officer who joined the company six months ago, left a 22-year career at Disney, in which she took creative designs and worked with technicians to make sure they not only met the company's aesthetic standards but also were safe and functional. She helped design parks in Tokyo, Shanghai and Hong Kong, managing a budget of over $2.2 billion.

She was lured to Meow Wolf for not for the money, she said, but the creativity.

"I was offered the chance of taking my experience in theme parks and building it into something wildly creative and more fun," she said, adding her focus is executing new projects in the works in Las Vegas, Nev. (set to open in 2020), and Denver (scheduled to open in 2021). The group also has announced projects are planned in Washington, D.C., and Phoenix.

"These are extremely exciting projects," Rubinstein said of the Las Vegas and Denver facilities. "We've started installation at both locations and are building some mind-bending attractions."

Meow Wolf become a Certified B Corporation through the nonprofit B Lab, designating it as a business that meets the organization's social and environmental performance standards as well as measures of public transparency and accountability. And in May, Meow Wolf announced a $17 hourly starting wage -- including for seasonal full-time and part-time employees.

The company has been hailed as a success, but it's not without critics. Shortly after the company announced its minimum-wage hike, two former employees filed a lawsuit alleging gender discrimination, unfair pay practices and wrongful termination. Kadlubek has denied the allegations.

And in August, the company received blowback over an effort to buy back shares from hundreds of investors who had participated in a WeFunder.com crowdfunding campaign in 2017 that raised $1.1 million in two days. The buyback -- at a gain of 109 percent for investors -- was part of the investment deal, Meow Wolf said.

According to U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filings, Meow Wolf reported that crowdfunding was part of $158 million collected from 87 investors in May to fund its expansions.

Despite the meteoric growth of the company, Kadlubek said it's not for sale.

"I'm sure there's a lot of companies looking at us right now, but we're not on the market," he said. "We have a board that's committed to Meow Wolf, that's committed to New Mexico."

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